Jul 13, 2021 - Economy & Business

New York Times faces contentious summer of labor battles

Illustration of people holding picket signs made of the front pages of The New York Times.

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

The New York Times is facing several critical labor battles, all coming to a head this summer.

Why it matters: The Times serves as a bellwether for other media unions trying to negotiate complicated matters such as compensation, DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) and whether journalists own their intellectual property.

Driving the news: Times bargaining committee representatives will meet with Times management Wednesday to negotiate a new contract between The NewsGuild of New York, which represents hundreds of Times editorial employees, and Times management, sources tell Axios.

  • The current contract between the two groups was signed in 2017 and expired March 31st. There have been around seven negotiation meetings so far.
  • "We're hoping to have a deal by the end of the year," says Bill Baker, unit chair for the union at the NY Times.
  • Negotiation talks have ramped up this summer, attracting hundreds of Times employees to the monthly Zoom meetings as observers.

The thorny issues:

  1. Compensation: The Guild wants better compensation terms for employees, including a $65,000 minimum wage for all union members. The Guild has yet to hear back from Times management on its proposal. Sources say that it's possible that The Times could present its compensation proposals during Wednesday's meeting.
  2. Diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives: The Guild wants Juneteenth — currently a "flex" holiday — to become a permanent company holiday for employees, according to a union source familiar with the matter.
  3. Intellectual property: The Guild wants compensation and control for reporters when their reporting is used for things like film projects. Such negotiations have already caused drama internally at the paper, The Daily Beast reports.

The last meeting between the two groups in late June was contentious. Sources say the tension was palpable to some of the roughly 200 Times employees sitting in the meeting as observers.

  • The Times management asked if every reporter attending had gotten explicit permission from their managers to sit in and observe the meeting.
  • They asked that every Times reporter that showed up to the meeting over Zoom turn their camera on. (This request was eventually dismissed.)
  • Instead of letting every reporter into the meeting at the same time, they let them in one at a time, reciting their names aloud to confirm that they were on a list provided by the union.
  • A Times source said that measure was in place because some people who didn't confirm their attendance beforehand tried to join the meeting and the Times needed to verify their identity in accordance with agreed-upon protocols.

Between the lines: The Times is currently facing a number of labor battles.

  • The Times' management said in April they would not voluntarily recognize a union formed between more than 650 tech workers at the paper, but said it would support the tech workers vote to unionize via an official National Labor Relations Board election.
  • Critics were quick to point out that The Times had voluntarily recognized worker unions in the past. "The company's decision to not recognize them is very disturbing," said Baker. 
  • It voluntarily recognized a union for Wirecutter in 2019. The Wirecutter union is also currently negotiating a contract with management, per sources.

Be smart: One issue that has come up amongst Times employees is that the company has increased dividend payouts to shareholders, while employees have yet to see substantial wage increases in the wake of rising profits.

At the same time, some reporters at The Times are simultaneously pushing back against the NewsGuild of New York for trying to raise dues to help bankroll the NewsGuild as it expands, as Vanity Fair has reported.

  • This dispute has nothing to do with Times management, but it adds to the already contentious environment around labor discussions at the company.

The big picture: A record number of news unionization efforts have developed over the past year during the pandemic.

  • On Monday, Poynter reported that news workers have launched more than 200 union drives in the past decade, and over 90% of them have been successful.

The bottom line: The outcome of the simultaneous labor disputes at The Times will likely set important precedents for how smaller news unions are able to negotiate certain terms around modern workplace issues.

  • They may also be a litmus test for how much leverage employees in negotiations have when The Times is in a solid financial position.
  • "For people that have been there for a long time, the feeling is, 'Now that the place is finally growing and making money, it's time to get our piece of that,'" one Times source said.
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